Amid a steady diet of doom and gloom – From the House of the Dead to close out last season, and Norma to open this one – the National Theatre served up a palate freshener with a cheery double bill, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. The latter proved to be the crowd-pleaser on opening night, but the opener was the real star of the evening, dazzling in its inventiveness and visual allure.

Aside from both pieces being fairy tales, there is no particular reason to pair them. Both composers are Russian, but they represent radically different periods and styles. A lengthy essay in the program takes pains to make other connections, the most convincing of which is the wellspring of the source material: the Danish Golden Age. Hans Christian Andersen wrote his eponymous story of a bird that charms an emperor in 1843, and Henrik Hertz wrote his play about a blind princess, King René’s Daughter, in 1845. Otherwise, the two stories are entirely separate and self-contained, which is how director Dominik Beneš treated them, with the exception of a single visual motif.

Beneš captures the spirit of enchantment in The Nightingale by presenting it as a children’s storybook, with fantastic images rendered in bold, primary colors and exaggerated characters spilling across the stage – starting with Death, a slinky seductress in a glittering scarlet gown. The fisherman who arrives to hear the nightingale steers a boat that floats down from the sky, and the noblemen who scurry in to invite it to sing for the emperor look like they were outfitted by Salvador Dalí. The costumes grow more outlandish and the pacing more energetic as the opera unfolds, making it impossible to look away. 

The nightingale (Olga Jelínková on opening night) first appears in front of a large crescent moon, then flits about the stage for most of the night, a warbling modern dancer. The portrayal of her rival, the Japanese mechanical nightingale, is particularly ingenious. After a bombastic introduction by three visiting dignitaries, an aerial silk performer ascends a bright red scarf and does a series of silent routines – captivating to watch, and utterly soulless. It’s an emblematic moment of a production in which every character is both real and symbolic.

Jelínková will not win any dance awards, but was in fine voice for the lead role, with solid support from Josef Moravec (the fisherman), Aleš Jenis (the emperor) and Yukiko Šrejmová Kinjo (the cook). Stanislava Jirků made the most of her few lines as Death, though was more effective as a silent Dark Angel, especially in a chilling Madonna pose with the emperor. But Beneš and costume designer Zuzana Přidalová were the real stars of the opening piece, creating a dream world with its own internal logic and an arresting visual language to match.

Alas, very little of that magic makes its way into Iolanta, done in a competent but straightforward manner, with no attempt to probe any of the story’s psychological depths. The colors are muted and conceits like the title character swimming in a sea of roses seem contrived rather than revealing. Even a reprise of the Madonna moment, this time with the Moorish physician imparting life instead of Death trying to take it away, fails to generate any resonance.

To be fair, the opera suffered from its context and content, with Tchaikovsky’s lush but conventional melodies paling after Stravinsky’s fresh, whimsical score, and the single setting precluding visual flights of fancy. Mirror-image scrims of the forest bending outward from the center of the stage neatly captured the princess’s isolation, but remained in place throughout, putting even more demands on the singers to carry the story and deliver its emotional impact. Jevhen Šokalo showed genuine anguish as the king, and Aljaž Farasin was a serviceable Vaudémont. Veronika Dzhioeva sang the title role with more passion than precision, and was a bit shrill in the high notes. But the audience loved her, and seemed more than happy with the clichéd clinch-and-kiss ending.

Visiting British conductor Jan Latham-Koenig did a superb job with the National Theater Orchestra, which excels in the Romantic repertoire but tends to be hit-and-miss with more modern fare. On this occasion, the Stravinsky was inspired – technically sharp, especially in all the complicated woodwind passages, and brilliantly understated. Most conductors approach Stravinsky aggressively, but Latham-Koenig’s subtle take on the music was insightful and beautifully played.

And who’s to argue with two happy endings on a single night?